UPDATE: McCain's Weak Candidacy - Becoming Conventional Wisdom?

Over the last few months, I've been making the case that McCain is one of the worst candidates we've seen run for President in modern times. On the two most important issues in the campaign - the economy and the war - he provides unambiguous support to the wildly unpopular and failed positions of President Bush. He trails Obama by mid single digits in most national polls, is only running in the high 30s or low 40s, is 15 points or so behind where Bush ended up with Hispanics, is not ahead in any of the 17 states that make up the Democratic base of 248 electoral college votes, and is not definitively ahead in the Southerwestern states around Arizona that supposedly know him best (in fact Obama has solid leads in CO and NM). He is an erratic and often boring beyond imagination public personality, and has been making regular and routine mistakes on the stump that I believe should be getting more attention than they have to date, as they raise questions about his basic command of facts, his own voting record and the world around him. His repeated flip-flops on major issues makes it clear he is much more ambitious pol than virtuous reformer.

Yes, Simon, we know you think this is a bad campaign and McCain a bad candidate. But why then is Obama only ahead of him by 4-6 points? Remember, my friends, that Democrats have only broken 50.1% in the national popular vote once in the last 60 years of politics, and a 4-6 point win in Presidential politics is a landslide. McCain has been on the national stage for many years, is a true war hero and his party still controls the White House. Obama only burst on the stage four years ago, has that unusual name, got quite beat up during a very tough primary, and of course is the first bi-racial candidate in our history. That Obama is ahead at all at this point to me is surprising.

Dan Balz captured some of this emerging convention wisdom yesterday in this post on McCain's Colombia trip.

By November (probably even by August), McCain's trip to Latin America will have been long forgotten, but it is a symbol now of a campaign that has yet to find its cruising speed. The time spent in Colombia and Mexico matters less than the message it sends -- or perhaps more correctly, the absence of a message that it sends. What is McCain trying to tell voters by this visit?

McCain could not have made this trip because he needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials. That may be part of the motivation for Obama's upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe: Obama wants to demonstrate that he is not intimidated by going head-to-head with McCain on international issues. He will use the overseas trip as well to bask in some of the glow that his candidacy has created abroad.

Obama's trip makes political sense. McCain's doesn't. McCain's strongest suit already is national security. Virtually every poll shows that Americans regard him as fully experienced on those issues. Voters may disagree with McCain's policies, which means there is an opening for Obama to challenge the presumptive GOP nominee on foreign policy. But demonstrating familiarity with foreign leaders or regional issues won't do much for McCain at this point. People assume he has that.

Public opinion shows deep skepticism about the value of free trade agreements. Is McCain's purpose in going to Colombia and Mexico designed to show how willing he is to buck public opinion, to demonstrate that he is prepared to take unpopular stands? That seems unlikely. Every politician this year is looking for ways to feel the pain of their constituents. McCain is no exception. He may be for free trade but he isn't looking to flaunt it to struggling workers.

Instead, take the trip as a metaphor for a campaign still not quite through its long shakedown period. McCain has had months to make the transition from nomination battle to general election, but still appears to lack the kind of cohesive operation he will need to win in a very difficult environment for the Republicans.

The McCain campaign can point to national polls that show the race with Obama is still close. Most polls have the margin in single digits. But Republican strategists outside the campaign worry that, unless McCain develops a more coherent strategy and message, he'll have difficulty winning in November. They are not in despair, but the concern is rising. McCain is aware of these concerns, but it's not clear how much he shares them.

It is useful to recall that a year ago, McCain's campaign imploded, with chief strategist John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson handing in their resignations and the top level of the communications shop following them out the door. Almost no one gave McCain any real chance of winning. Seven months later he had clinched that nomination.

His situation now is hardly comparable. But he can't count on the mistakes of his rival to boost him in the general election the same way he was able to do in the primaries. When he returns from Colombia and Mexico and hunkers down for the holiday weekend, he will no longer have to answer questions about where he was. But will he have the answer to the question of where he goes from here.


And of course, yesterday Old Man McCain acknowledged this corrosive weakness himself, when he replaced his 2nd campaign manager of his Presidential campaign with his 3rd. The Post covered it this way:

Facing growing dissatisfaction both inside and outside his campaign, Sen. John McCain ordered a shake-up of his team yesterday, reducing the role of campaign manager Rick Davis and vesting political adviser Steve Schmidt with "full operational control" of his bid for the presidency.

Schmidt becomes the third political operative in the past year to take on the task of attempting to guide McCain to the White House. A veteran of President Bush's political operation, Schmidt will be in charge of finding a more effective message in the Arizona Republican's race against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in most polls.

In a telephone interview, Schmidt said that McCain faces a difficult challenge, given the overall mood of the country, but that he is encouraged by the race remaining relatively tight.

"There are 125 days left until the American people will decide the next president," he said. "Senator McCain is the underdog in the race. We suspect he is behind nationally five to eight points but well within striking distance. I will help run an organization that exists for the purpose of delivering John McCain's message to the American people." Schmidt is also expected to abandon Davis's plan to put roughly a dozen regional campaign managers in place around the country.

The abrupt shift in leadership, announced to McCain's staff yesterday morning, came after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driven largely by fundraising priorities rather than political necessity.

"There's not a cogent message," one Republican strategist said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They've been attacking Obama every day, but it doesn't tie back to an overarching theme that McCain believes in."

The problems crystallized this week, with McCain on a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he is talking about trade and drug trafficking, an exercise even some insiders considered a waste of the candidate's time.

"They've been playing this ripped-from-the-headlines game. Whatever is hot or interesting for the day is what they've been talking about," said one former McCain adviser who is no longer with the campaign.


So far I think the press has not been as nearly as tough on McCain as they could have been. It will be interesting to see if we are headed towards a big political elite downward arrow for McCain and his merry band of men, a downward arrow they certainly deserve.

For more on McCain, view these recent essays: The Story of the Race So Far - The Surprising Weakness of John McCain, Senator McCain, Clarify Your Position on Immigration, Old Man McCain and Senator McCain, Careful What You Wish For or click on the McCain tag and see what you else you can find from the rest of the very able NDN team.

Saturday, July 5, update - The New York Times has a new story this afternoon which looks, gently, at McCain's struggles as a public speaker.

Saturday, July 5, 6 p.m. update - Just found a piece in this vein, this one from Liz Sidoti at AP.

Monday, July 7, update - The WaPo has a major front page story looking at how organized conservative interests will challenge McCain at the GOP convention this fall.